Using Ancestry: The Value of Gazetteers, by George G. Morgan

Lippincott's Gazetteer (cover page -- was the last time you looked for a town or village in an atlas and couldn’t find it? I do it more times than I’d like, but there can be any number of reasons. First, I could have misspelled the name of the place. Second, I could be looking in an atlas for the wrong location (county, province, shire, etc.). Third, the location may not exist any longer, or it may exist under another name!

I spent a long time trying to locate the place in North Carolina from which my grandmother posted a letter in 1901. It was maddening! There was no such place, as far as I could tell EVER! Finally, I located a United States Post Office microfilm from NARA and found that there really was such a place as Shiva, North Carolina; it was a freight office/post office in a country store in Iredell County.

My hometown is listed on page 1,089 in Lippincott’s Gazetteer of the World, 1913, a new database at It states:

“Madison, a banking-post village of Rockingham Co., N.C., on the Dan River, at the mouth of the Mayo, about 36 miles WSW. of Danville, Va., on the Southern and Western Rs. [Railroads] Pop. in 1900: 813.”

You can still find that town in contemporary atlases and gazetteers.

However, were you to search a current map for Shoofly, Iowa, you wouldn’t find it. However, Lippincott’s Gazetteer lists it on page 1700 as a “post-station of Johnson Co., Iowa, about 20 miles W. of Muscatine.” And Leaksville, N.C., appears on page 1,005 as another “banking-post village in Rockingham Co., N.C., on the Dan River, 25 miles SW. of Danville, Va., on the Danville and Western R. It has tobacco factories, etc. Pop. in 1900: 688.” (Leaksville and its sister towns of Spray and Draper merged in the 1960s to form the current municipality of Eden.)

As you can see, there is a substantial amount of information included in a gazetteer. I use gazetteers in conjunction with both historical and contemporary maps in several ways.

1. The most obvious use is to find a location mentioned in ancestral records. Not only can you locate the place name, but you can determine the county, province, or other geopolitical jurisdiction at a certain period in time. Sometimes you will have to refer to maps and/or gazetteers of earlier or subsequent periods to fine-tune the date of a change. You can also search the Web and/or you can refer to the excellent reference book, Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources. The sheer number of boundary and name changes throughout history makes your study of geography and mastery of geopolitical research essential.

2. You can get a distinct feel for what the location was like at a specific point in time. Where was it located? What was its population at a certain time? What type of place was it? (Banking and post references, in this gazetteer, indicate that it was a local financial center and sustained a post office of some sort. Sometimes the major industry or agricultural crop(s) are listed.) What transportation links were there? Railroads, river transportation, or some other mode?

3. Be sure to read the introduction or preface to all the maps and gazetteers you use. They will often set the stage for the content, the pronunciations, the currency of the information, the inclusion or omission of certain data, and abbreviations. “Lippincott’s Gazetteer” contains all of these items and more. In fact, the appendices include “A Conspectus of the Thirteenth Census.” This includes data from the 1910 census, as well as comparative information with the 1900 census.) While this is, indeed, a world gazetteer, these appendices focus on the United States. The publisher, J.B. Lippincott Company, was based in Philadelphia and London; the book is copyrighted in 1905 and in 1911. The reason for this is that the original version of the book was published in 1905, but the gazetteer was so successful that another edition, containing the 1910 U.S. census data, was compiled and published.

Make a point of locating a good gazetteer such as this one, become familiar with how to use it, and then come back to it often. I personally own printed, hardbound gazetteers of the U.S., the United Kingdom and Ireland, Canada, and Germany. I refer to them constantly, and my personal research would be lacking without them.

There are many more gazetteers available at Ancestry as well. A search of the Card Catalog for the keyword “gazetteer” results in 130 hits. However, the addition of Lippincott’s Gazetteer of the World, 1913, is now a new, centralized, online favorite database for me. I’ve already spent hours browsing through its digitized page images. You will too!

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9 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: The Value of Gazetteers, by George G. Morgan

  1. I always read articles like this because I’ve always had a problem with a place in Westchester county, NY that doesn’t exist anymore. Even when you contact the area, no one really seems to be able to say exactly where it was in relation to what is there now – to try to get a sense of the boundaries.

    And yet, it’s referred to extensively in the latter half of the 19th century. I went to the gazeteer above and keyed in the words “Middle Patent” but of course “no results.”

    I would imagine it probably is like this for a lot of places that went by the wayside… Just wish that someone somewhere somehow could describe exactly what the boundaries were for Middle Patent, Westchester county, NY in 1875!

  2. I just googled “middle patent” new york and Wikipedia says: “In the early 1700s King William gave his favorite courtiers the West Patent, of which the western portion of North Castle was a part, and the Middle Patent, the eastern part of North Castle. At one time North Castle included all the territory that became incorporated as New Castle in 1791. The territory comprising both towns was once part of the Parish of Rye organized in 1693.”

  3. I just typed in “gazeteer” into the keyword in the card catalogue and received “1” hit, not 130. What did I miss in this article?

  4. You mentioned Leaksville, NC. My father’s brother supposedly left home and “went South and married a Georgia girl.” I finally found a Stuart Chapman in Leaksville b in NY, whose parents had also been b in NY. But I could never be sure that was my uncle, until I found the probate of their great-aunt who had left both Dad and Stuart something. By that time I had found that Leaksville had been called Spray in earlier years.

    In the probate was my father’s hand-written letter in reply to the lawyers, asking for Stuart’s whereabouts.
    Dad had written:”the last time we heard from Stuart he was in Spray, NC!” I had not only the thrill of seeing that familiar handwriting, but finding that it was my unknown uncle!

    Jean Snow

  5. How did you find and obtain your hardbound gazetteers? I’d love to own reference maps like that for 1850’s Yorkshire and northern Germany.

  6. I went to the Lippincott’s Gazetteer to look up Preparation, Iowa. It gave me six hits but when I went to view them Preparation, Iowa was not mentioned on any of the pages. Preparation was not in the ‘P’ section. How come? Quizzical Quint

  7. You’re missing a t. There are two in “gazetteer.” I always mess up that word too. I usually try to put in two z’s instead. 😉

    Also, when you use the card catalog, it’s best to use the keyword field. It turns up more hits because it doesn’t only search the title, but the description as well.

    Hope you find something good!

  8. I enjoyed your article about gazetteers. My mother and her family lived in Leaksville, NC which is now Eden, starting in the 1920s. I spent many happy summer days visiting in the 1950s-1960s. It was quite a “deal” when Leaksville, Draper, and Spray consolidated. The 3 cities were mill towns for Marshall Field originally producing bedspreads, blankets and carpets separately in each town. My grandfather was a supervisor in the Leaksville mill. Imagine my surprise when I was reading your article and up popped the name of someplace I knew so well.

  9. I am from Danville, VA but live in Tennessee now. I enjoyed reading your article which contained familiar names. I remember when Draper and Spray became Eden. I used to go to Eden to buy towels at the Fieldcrest store. Now that opperation has been moved to overseas locations as have the textile operations at Dan River Mills. There is a big hoopla in Danville right now about the original mill buildings being torn down. The purchasing company in India is even tearing down the original machinery and relocating it to India to “save money”. These are historical landmarks and it is sad to think that they will not be there in a few years, not to mention all the jobs that were lost when these businesses closed the American plants to opt for paying lower foreign wages. These are the things that will affect our ancestors in years to come. A modern example of how regional economic changes affect our lives in so many ways. Danville used to be the “Golden Buckle on the Tobacco Belt” but since we have learned that smoking is so damaging to our health most of the tobacco companies in Danville have either closed or moved to other countries. All of these changes will have long lasting effects on our families and hometowns in many ways. It will also explain how small towns can “dry up” and disappear.

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